We’re sitting at Over the Eighth, a new bar in Greenpoint owned by some of the hosts of the old Wierd [Records] night and Nothing Changes (Wednesday nights at Home Sweet Home in the Lower East Side.) Azar Swan, the brainchild of Zohra Atash and Josh Strawn. The bar is owned by their friends, which is why they suggest it. Azar Swan are part of a brilliant NYC underground, one met with a specific dark aesthetic and friendliness. They are avid music fans, their tastes as complex as their current project.
Sitting with the band, it becomes immediately apparent that their art is found in a striking honesty: they manage to maintain a sensual mystique and a certain openness. It makes sense when you consider that the band has released a digital single on Pendu Sound, their friend and colleague (Todd Pendu actually married Strawn to his wife on a cliff in Montauk). The single is called “In My Mouth,” and will soon be partnered with another, “Over.” The band is quick to mention that they also have two full length LPs in the work — there’s no stopping for them, it’s just time we pay attention.
Josh Strawn tells me he’s a recent father. He says that his daughter, Baby Grey, already digs Cocteau Twins. If she ages to be anything like her father, there’s hope for the future after all.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you guys meet?
ZA: At Lit Lounge, sadly enough. At 3 in the morning in 2004. He showed me his Sisters of Mercy tattoo and we all started arguing about music. He started grilling me about Serge Gainsbourg records and I refused to answer them because I knew he was testing me.
JS: We dated for six years. It’s so difficult to open a line of communication with someone you make music with and especially if you come to New York, like so many people do, as a transplant and you’re meeting people for the first time it’s really hard to develop that rough and tumble relationship.
ZA: We can be so honest with each other. I couldn’t work with another else, I couldn’t build that report. I couldn’t make music had it not been for Josh.
JA: We dated for six years but it’s been nine years. You hear about these great bands that were childhood friends, it’s obvious why they were able to get so good. You have to almost have that familial relationship to be able to navigate those creative difficulties and career difficulties.
I feel like that could work the opposite way: if you really know somebody and you love them so much in a friendly way that still just hits the fan. You see another side of them: they could be controlling and you butt heads.
ZA: It has to the kind of relationship where you can wipe off a fight. You won’t go home and think, “I can’t believe he said that to me.” We’ve said every possible thing to each other, every configuration of words I feel like nothing would shock him. As I heard on the Real Housewives of Atlanta: it cut to the white meat sometimes.
Ha-ha. So when did you start making music together?
ZA: Josh was in a band—Blacklist. They’re a great band, not saying that just because I know the guys. I showed Josh my music hopping he could help me… this was in 2008.
JS: I couldn’t really explain things. She was on a whole other trip. She was like into Nick Cave-y type stuff but I wasn’t, I like Nick Cave just fine. It was sort of an interest of a technical outside figure. I didn’t start working with her because I was just “trying to help,” I mean initially it was that, but in terms of taking an active role as a band member and getting serious about it. People could say, “oh you’re just helping your girlfriend” but I didn’t really feel that way.
ZA: We kept calling it “watery bass,” fretless bass was called “watery bass.” I just didn’t know how to talk about stuff. I thought it felt liquid-y, which is why I can work with him. Every time I’ve talked to another musician they’re like really sweet but also like, ‘what the hell is she talking about,’ and he has to translate.
Use extra-musical words and make noises.
ZA: It’s kind of like synesthesia where I’m talking in colors. “Just feel the heartbeat thumping,” and they don’t know what I mean and he has to translate it to him. There have been moments where I’m using weird timings I didn’t realize and he has to tell me. It made sense in my head.
JS: That’s the other thing. She doesn’t know what she’s doing. The title track, “Last Prayer” [from their previous band, Religious to Damn] is three chords and it throws everyone who has ever tried to play and the majority of everyone we’ve ever had in the band have had to be super serious musicians. Some of the players we had in the band used to be in a project called Time of Orchid and have played with Shutter to Think and our drummer is a classically trained percussionist and he’s bring in bass players to play and that song through everybody. She didn’t realize how crazy it was, she was just like, “guys, its three chords, just do it like this,” and it’s not. It’s really fucking weird.
Then what was your music upbringing? How did you learn to write songs and arrange things?
ZA: My father is a musician, so that was part of my upbringing, but we're from Afghan descent so he plays harmoniums and really strange instruments.
There’s a completely different structure there
ZA: Totally different structure. I saw him try to tune to a tabla drum machine. It’s really not a 4/4 thing. It’s really strange how they try to fit things in and it’s really not verse-chorus-verse-chorus. He tried to explain that to me and I remember sitting with him and trying to play harmonium at like two or three. I would hand him his beer and would push his harmonium up. It was really fun because he would let me sing with him. He wouldn’t discourage me, though that’s something he could have possibly done because he was a bit strict and expected stuff but when it came to the music and liking that sort of stuff he was very encouraging. But when it comes to making music and stuff, I’m not one to be in somebody’s band. I’m not discouraging myself I’m just not a band mate, I’m not a bass player, I have to be someone making the stuff or I’m useless. Not useless, but close to it.
JS: [The issue with our old band, Religious to Damn] We got no appreciate or reward for it on any end because when the record came out people saw Zohra and saw that she’s from Middle Eastern descent and said, “Well, this isn’t Zola Jesus or Bat for Lashes,” and for me it’s like, “Did you hear that insane bass work? Did you hear any of the shit was going on?”
It’s sad that music would be treated in such a black and white fashion.
JS: It’s a classic: “she’s a girl and she looks this way so she must be like the other girls that look this way” trope.
ZA: It really grossed me out for a while. I have a propensity of talking in sweeping jerkisms. So my natural reaction was to be like: fuck everybody. At the end of the day, that’s not helping anybody, that’s not helping me. I’ve been making music my entire fucking life. You’re not going to tell me that some girl that came out two years ago is what I’m trying to be like because she’s using organic instrumentation. When you do the math, it sounds nothing like that, but supposedly I was trying to do that.
It’s just crazy. It has to do with just having a vagina and I reject it. I reject the notion that women, if they’re not being pitted against other women. You get compared to these venerated women with seminal work and it’s not fair. No, my album was not as good as Hounds of Love but neither is anything else.
JS: I’d been in bands before but it was my first time being in a band with a manager and a publicist and a label and stuff like (Blacklist) that so I was watching that while simultaneously more seriously involved with Religious to Damn, everything you’ve ever heard Patti Smith or Stevie Nicks bitch about is true.
ZA: I have female friends who say, “Well, dudes get compared to dudes, too.” And I say “You’re doing a disservice to women by not saying it is what it is. It is that women musicians aren’t seen as having the longevity of men. Thank god PJ Harvey sings.
It’s a false dichotomy. You can’t say it’s okay if women are compared to women if men are compared to men because it’s not treated the same way.
JS: From my perspective, the people that she would get compared to were people that she looked like. For me, journalists would compare by saying my voice sounded like Wayne Hussey from the Mission and I hate the Mission, I’ve never listened to the Mission. They’re horrible. It’s so specific: they were going to far as to compare my music on the timbre of my vocals whereas with her, it was like “she dresses like her.” It’s like female politicians… when’s the last time a man had to have his suit commented on?
ZA: It’s absolutely disgusting and women play into it. “Actually I have a lot more male influences than female influences,” no, just say you have a fucking Stevie Nicks record. What’s the shame? What is the motherfucking shame in saying “I love Kate Bush.” She’s awesome. Just don’t compare me to her. It’s not a contest; we’re just making music. It’s your own expression. I’ve written to journalists and magazines, too, and they just block you from Facebook or whatever. It seemed a lot like they just didn’t like how I looked on the cover. We had this one review—god bless his 22- year-old intern soul—who reviewed our press release, not even the record.
Religious to Damn is vastly different from Azar Swan. So what was this period of reinvention like?
ZA: Phil Collins has a version of “In the Air Tonight” video that has this drum beat and I had it in my head. It doesn’t have the same punch as the version everyone knows and I loved it. I wanted to take it and thought “this is going to be the first time I make something with a fixed time.” So I took that and I didn’t tell them what the drum beat was.
JS: Bottom line was that we wrote the track and we loved it. It was a new feel for us and people responded really positively to it. With my background with Wierd, we wanted all these weird synths on the song but we didn’t have any of them so I asked Martial Canterel or someone from Led Er Est. I’d always made guitar music so I hit up Shaun. He sort of midwifed it and helped us out.
JS: Suddenly guitars were out of the project. We were listening to those demos the other day and there was definitely a transitional period.
It must be refreshing, new project, new name.
ZA: I felt baptized musically. Knowing now, after spearheading band, I don’t feel guilty not paying them. You can’t support a band with five people in it unless you’re getting major label money. Really it’s hard. I mean, Josh has a baby now and it’s easier to do with him than with five 24-27 year old baby-less adults.
[Photo by Phil Maier]
From the Azar Swan singles that I’ve heard, it comes across that you both are avid music fans as well as musicians, and strangely enough, sometimes those things don’t intersect.
ZA: I’m glad you say that because I have so many loves from just growing up listening to middle eastern music to French music to Scandinavian music because my family is Afghan we’ve spread out everywhere, we’re in every pocket. I couldn’t tell you exactly, it’s never just one genre, never one thing, and it comes from so many different places: this rhythm part, this string part. There’s no dilly dadling with Josh and me—we have that report so we’re able to mesh these complex things.
JS: It’s a thing to win by juxtaposition.
ZA: We have two records coming out the first is called “Dance before the War” and the second is “And Blow us a Kiss.”
Are there thematic similarities? Is there a narrative that connects them?
ZA: There is. It’s not a concept record but it’s definitely inspired by this journey I took after the Religious to Damn record came out. I spent a lot of time with my friends who spent some time in the Special Forces, just doing other kinds of work. I grew up in DC and my family and friends do a lot of charity work for people in Afghanistan, I’ve been involved in a lot of different projects and that’s how I grow non-musically. I had been spending some time there and this man was at Walter Reed for a while and was told he would never walk again and lost an eye. The thing that people actually deal with—you think you’re being semiotic with like not knowing what’s going on with your life in New York and it seemed like there was stuff so much bigger than what was happening in my life. War is very much part of the fabric of my growing up being Afghan and my grandfather was killed by the Soviets and I heard about it daily. This dark imagery isn’t something that I started to fester over as a teenager; I’d been weaned on it at an early age. When I heard about some of these things that these soldiers do to prepare for these grueling intense missions and some of it was to get these ghetto blasters and to put this Black Eyed Peas song on and these guys with their guns are dancing because it’s the last fucking time they might be alive. I’m thinking to myself, “that’s fucking crazy” and I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen the footage. You had to keep records when these types of missions just for posterity. I saw it and that imagery really stuck with me. These people are on their way to their potential death. It’s like that juxtaposition of that Monty Python song: singing before your ship goes down / always look on the bright side of life. It stuck with me. I had to learn to be more positive through realizing that someone not respecting you or not giving you your propers is not the biggest deal. It made me feel there’s a bigger picture. I love this New York creative life and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but you have to realize that there are things just as important if not far more intense.
Even if you haven’t been to war, you know what fear is, perhaps not in the same way.
ZA: I’m writing it in what I think it would be like. For a very long time, growing up, as an Afghan woman in America, I was given doses of fear everyday. “Dance before the war” is a celebration, quite literally “dancing before the war.” It’s fear and happiness. What does that sound like? I don’t know, but I think it approximate to that.
Do you think you’ve found a musical identity with Azar Swan?
ZA: Definitely, especially with this double album.
JS: We’ve already got ideas for the third record! I don’t know if we’ve discovered an identity as much as we’ve found a cohesion in our ideas.
ZA: We’re usually in tandem with one another. The relationship didn’t work out but the music did. Being able to suffer through a breakup but survive as a band? It’s very much a Fleetwood Mac / Rumors thing that’s in this record, and very much in Azar Swan. Trying to figure what you mean to someone. You just learn how to grow from a really traumatic thing.